Saturday, November 27, 2010

An uncertain joke

Werner Heisenberg

A joke I heard from a local Chemist chossid. (For those with no background in physics, read this first.)
A cop stops an electron going at a high speed on a highway. He approaches the electron and asks: “Sir, do you know how fast you were going?” The electron answers: “I know exactly how fast I was going, but I have no idea where I am.”

Friday, November 26, 2010

Uniqueness, revisited

I've been thinking about it last night. What is the chiddush of Alter Rebbe? I mean, really? Not using long words and paragraphs.

Well. I remember, around Simchas Torah, I've been sitting in the sukkah of one local Jew, with my rabbi and a Yemenite Jew from Israel. We were talking about Chabad and Judaism in general. And I said: "In Chabad, we believe that ein od milvado — there is nothing but Him". And the Jew answered: "What, everywhere else they don't believe?"

So, my rabbi, diplomatically, changed the subject a little bit, and said: "The Rebbe once asked someone if he knows what a difference between emunah and bitachon is. And the person said he didn't know. So, the Rebbe explained: emunah is when you believe that when you come to an obstacle, the obstacle is for the best, and Hashem will give you the power to overcome it. Bitachon is an awareness that there is no obstacle."

(And, if you think about it, we believe in something, but trust somebody — not in somebody. Meaning, faith is a state of philosophical disposition towards some concept. [I know, I promised no long words.] But trust is personal. And how can you establish a personal relationship with G-d to the point that not only do you believe — abstractly — that He does only good, but trust Him directly? Why, you learn about G-d and meditate and daven.)

But after all of this, I thought last night. And I think it's actually quite simple. You can believe that ein od milvado. I mean, everyone believes that. It's in the book. But to make it an ikkar of your haskala and avoida, to put it on the cover, lehavdil, like "Do not panic" was written on the cover of H2G2?

And then again: you can make it the ikkar from which everything stems. But to make every single nekuda in avoida and haskala directly linked to it and revealing it directly? To see ein od milvado in two Jews splitting a talles — and applying it directly to your everyday life? Now, that's another thing entirely.

I mean, it's quite a feat. No?

And that's what Yud-Tes Kislev is for me. The way TRS puts it, no bochur who is not married knows what it's like to be married. Even if he knows everything, all the steps, in theory — he doesn't really know it, does he? Yud-Tes Kislev for me is about knowing it. "Yadativ v'hayisiv."

Uniqueness of Chabad Chassidus


[a re-post from a few years back]

On the last two days, I’ve been to four farbrengens (three last night and one tonight) and have a lot of thoughts and little time (what with starting new things in yiddishkeit and, lehavdil, science), so I will summarize the main point.

To quote myself:
Just like a spark reveals in gasoline its “internal” nature (the fact that it — like the spark — is fire, energy), our behavior in this generation will reveal the essence of the Era of Mashiach. Just like in the Era of Mashiach, it will be b’gilui that ein od milvado, when we behave in such a way as to show that there is literally nothing but Hashem, we draw closer that Era. What does it mean behaving in such a way? That’s what Chassidus teaches one — each school of Chassidus in its own way. Therefore, since it is obligation of every Jew to attempt to do everything to bring Mashiach as soon as possible (since the Era of Mashiach is the essential reason why the world was created), it is necessary for every Jew to learn Chassidus and allow its teachings shape his life and service of G-d.
The question is: what is the uniqueness of Chassidus Chabad?

* * *

When Torah was given, most of it was given orally, and the main points of it were written down in the Chumash. Then, when there came a point when rabbis did not “see” as clearly in Torah, the mesorah of precedents in interpretation got started. Then, there came times when accuracy of transmission of Oral Torah was in danger, major points of it were written down in a form of Mishna. Then, the precedents in interpretation of Mishna were written down in Talmud. For a while, people intuitively understood Talmud (passing orally explanations and teachings of its meaning), but eventually came the time, when even this level of understanding diminished. In the words of Rambam, justifying his writing of Mishneh Torah in its introduction:
In our times, severe troubles come one after another, and all are in distress; the wisdom of our Torah scholars has disappeared, and the understanding of our discerning men is hidden. Thus, the commentaries, the responses to questions, and the settled laws that the Geonim wrote, which had once seemed clear, have in our times become hard to understand, so that only a few properly understand them. And one hardly needs to mention the Talmud itself — the Babylonian Talmud, the Jerusalem Talmud, the Sifra, the Sifre, and the Toseftot — which all require a broad mind, a wise soul, and considerable study, before one can correctly know from them what is forbidden or permitted and the other rules of the Torah.
For this reason, I, Moshe son of the Rav Maimon the Sephardi, found that the current situation is unbearable; and so, relying on the help of the Rock blessed be He, I intently studied all these books, for I saw fit to write what can be determined from all of these works in regard to what is forbidden and permitted, and unclean and clean, and the other rules of the Torah: Everything in clear language and terse style, so that the whole Oral Law would become thoroughly known to all; without bringing problems and solutions or differences of view, but rather clear, convincing, and correct statements, in accordance with the legal rules drawn from all of these works and commentaries that have appeared from the time of Our Holy Teacher to the present.
This is so that all the rules should be accessible to the small and to the great in the rules of each and every commandment and the rules of the legislations of the Torah scholars and prophets [...].
In other words, knowledge necessary for serving G-d that was intuitive, obvious and successfully taught orally, is not so anymore, and therefore, it is necessary to write it down. This pattern repeats itself in the Jewish history throughout generations.

* * *

What does this have to do with Chassidus? Well, Judaism is a way of connecting to G-d. Not a way for making sure that we are fed, clothed, have happy families, nice communities, good relationships between each other, success in business and so on. Sure, all these things can come from Torah one way or another, but they are not the reason why Torah was given. It was given to connect this world and ourselves to G-d.

For all the generations, the connection of a Jew to G-d was obvious, natural, intuitive and did not need to be taught explicitly. If a Jew was a part of Jewish community, Jewish tradition, the system of Jewish thought and learning, he was connected to G-d. He saw G-d in everyday events in the world, he saw G-d in blatt Gemara, he saw G-d in davening (although already he would have to say psukei d’zimra before kriyas Shma).

In the times of Baal Shem Tov, this started disappearing. People saw the world, but not G-d. People saw oxes goring cows and workers being paid on time and intellectual pleasure from the pilpul, but not G-d in those laws. People were having difficulty realizing in an obvious way — in theory and, especially, in practice — that ein od milvado, there is nothing but Him, and this fact should give us life, energy and special understanding of why we live our lives, learn Torah and keep mitzvos. And a neshama entered this world to rectify this.

Baal Shem Tov explained how there is nothing but Him, how one must serve G-d with joy and passion, how one must unconditionally love every Jew. The Maggid explained it. Talmidei Maggid explained it. The explanation was passed down from a tzaddik to his chassidim in a form of oral tradition.

Then came the upstart called Rav Shneur Zalman Boruchovich from Lyozhna and said: “Not enough”. Oral tradition is not enough. Customs, songs, culture, connection of a chossid to his Rebbe at the Rebbe’s table are not enough. What is needed is a written-down, organized, structured, accessible to simplest people teaching that will explain how exactly it is that “there is nothing but Him” — both in the world and in Torah — and how to apply it in practice, from day to day, in our lives. How, using this knowledge, in theory and in practice, we can bring Mashiach.

To which the rest of the Jewish world said: “Gevalt!..” To reveal the essence of Torah? Not in a form of customs, abstract stories, sayings, teachings, personall examples of chassidim from their rebbeim, but in a form of a teaching?! To distill most precious treasure into a book, for everyone, from a shoemaker to a talmid chochom, to study? (By the way, today, on the 20th of Kislev, is the anniversary of the first printing of Tanya.)

And there was a judgement, deciding who is right; in which Alter Rebbe won on Yud Tes Kislev. And the rest is history…

* * *

Two final things. Niggun “Podoh V’Sholom” can be listened to here (lyrics, translation and history behind the niggun, including its connection to Yud-Tes Kislev, are there too). Also, it finally snowed here.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

British are strange

We are now, have always been, and I hope shall always be hated by the French.
— Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington

The more British, the stranger.

I remember again the quote from Gettysburg:
Well, if he's an angel, all right then... But he damn well must be a killer angel. Colonel, darling, you're a lovely man. I see a vast great difference between us, yet I admire you, lad. You're an idealist, praise be. 
The truth is, Colonel... There is no "divine spark". There's many a man alive no more of value than a dead dog. Believe me. When you've seen them hang each other the way I have back in the Old Country. Equality? What I'm fighting for is to prove I'm a better man than many of them. 
Where have you seen this "divine spark" in operation, Colonel? Where have you noted this magnificent equality? No two things on Earth are equal or have an equal chance. Not a leaf, not a tree. There's many a man worse than me, and some better... But I don't think race or country matters a damn. What matters, Colonel... is justice. 
Which is why I'm here. I'll be treated as I deserve, not as my father deserved. I'm Kilrain... and I damn all gentlemen. There is only one aristocracy... and that is right here [points to his head].
Storming the stronghold:

Classic scene with Wellington:

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Is it proper for a Jew to have a driver’s license?

[A re-post]

Following the topic of dealing with the outside world, here’s some news from Jerusalem:
Four students were expelled from the Tiferet Israel yeshiva in Jerusalem after it became known that they had obtained driver’s licenses in violation of the yeshiva’s rules.
The decision triggered a heated debate among the ultra-Orthodox public surrounding the question of the legitimacy of owning a license.
After learning that some of their students might have taken driving lessons, the yeshiva heads conducted a thorough investigation and even contacted the Transportation Ministry on the matter.
“Anyone can call the Transportation Ministry, give an ID number and inquire whether that person owns a driver’s license,” one of the students explained.
Following the inquiry, the yeshiva heads convened to discuss the “problematic phenomenon” and eventually decided to immediately expel any student who is in possession of a license.
The rabbis told the students that they could be readmitted once they have their license revoked.
However, one of the expelled students was later readmitted after the rabbis found out that he got the license to help his crippled father.
Most ultra-Orthodox rabbis oppose the notion of a haredi person getting a license. “It’s inappropriate for a person who defines himself learned in the Torah to have a driver’s license,” a prominent rabbi told the yeshiva director when the latter came to consult him on the issue.
From the Rebbe’s book of everyday thoughts, Hayoim Yoim (7th of Kislev):
There are three schools of thought:
  1. The discipline of nullification of the material by indicating the repulsive and abhorrent nature of all that is bodily and material. This is the school of Mussar.
  2. The school of recognition of the superiority of the “inner form” and the spiritual — the dimension of character-traits and intellectuality — and instruction as to how one may come closer to attaining these. This is the school of Chakira, philosophy.
  3. The discipline of predominance of form over matter. This school teaches the unique quality of the material when it is purified, and the unique quality of “form” when integrated with the material; the two are to be so thoroughly fused that one cannot detect where either of them begins or ends — for “Their beginning is wedged into their end, and their end into their beginning”. The One G-d created them both, and for one purpose — to reveal the light of Holiness of His hidden power. Only both of them together will complete the perfection desired by the Creator. This is the school of Chassidus.

From the talk given on motzei Shabbos, parshas Yisroi, 1984:
The last Mishna in the Ethics of the Fathers states: “All the Holy One, blessed be He, created in this world, He created only for His glory.” [...]

This Mishnah answers those who question the use of modern advances in technology for the sake of Torah. They frown upon the use of radio in disseminating Torah, claiming that since their predecessors were able to learn Torah and teach it to others without its use, it should not be used now [...].
Learning Tanya on the radio is a manifestation of the dissemination of the wellsprings of Chassidus to the outside. Through the radio, the actual wellsprings of Chassidus are spread instantly to every place in the world, engulfing the “outside” in the wellsprings — and thereby purifying the “outside”. It is the preparation to the fulfillment of the promise, “The earth shall be full of the knowledge of the L-rd as the waters cover the sea”, for, as was promised to the Baal Shem Tov, Mashiach will come “when your wellsprings shall spread forth to the outside”.

Radio is a comparatively new technology. Only recently has it been utilized by Jews for holy purposes such as learning Tanya, whereas before that it had been used for secular and even unholy purposes. On this basis, say some Jews, Tanya should not be learned on radio, for radio is intrinsically evil.

Such a claim is not only wrong, but totally contradicts Torah and the Jewish faith.

Nothing and nobody but G-d has the ability to create even the smallest thing (Sanhedrin 67b; Yerushalmi Sanhedrin, 7). This is fully recorded in Scripture (Bereishis 1:1): “In the beginning G-d created the heavens and the earth”: “the heavens — to include everything therein, and the earth — to include everything therein” (Rashi, Bereishis, 1:14). Evil cannot create; everything in this universe, including the ability to transmit through radio, is a creation of G-d. In the words if the Alter Rebbe (Tanya, p.260): “He alone has it in His power and ability to create something out of an absolute naught and nothingness.”

If the above applies to even the smallest things, it certainly applies to radio, a powerful force that G-d invested in nature enabling a person’s voice to instantly be heard all over the world.

Since everything in the world was created “for the sake of the Torah and for the sake of Israel” (Rashi, Bereishis 1:1), it is clear that the powerful force of radio was created so that it be utilized for holy matters, such as the dissemination of Torah. Indeed, our Sages explicitly state (Pirkei Avos 6:11): “All that the Holy One, blessed be He, created in His world, He created solely for His glory.”

However, as in all matters, man is given free choice to use radio for good or evil — “Behold, I have set before you this day [a free choice] between life and good and death and evil” (Devarim 30:15). And, says G-d, “Choose life!” (Devarim 30:19). That some people misuse radio for evil purposes is therefore no reason not to utilize it for the purpose for which it was created — “for the sake of the Torah and for the sake of Israel.”

We find a parallel to the above in Mishnah (Avodah Zarah 4:7): “The [Jewish] elders in Rome were asked, ‘If [your G-d] has no desire for idolatry, why does He not abolish it?’ They replied: ‘If people would worship something unnecessary to the world, He would abolish it; but they worship the sun, moon, stars and planets. Should He destroy His universe on account of fools?!’” In our case, because there are fools who use the power of radio for bad purposes, should this prevent the use of it for good purposes?

But, counter those people whose whole delight is to interfere with good and holy projects, the use of radio cannot be compared to the above mishnah. The sun and moon, the purpose of which is to give light, were created before fools began to worship them; therefore it makes sense that G-d should not destroy His world on account of fools. Radio, however, was originally used for secular and even profane purposes. How then can we say that radio was created only “for the sake of the Torah and for the sake of Israel?”

An explicit refutation to this argument is found in a Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 16:2), which states: “The world was not worthy to use gold. Why then was it created? For the sake of the Mishkan.” Gold was created in the six days of creation and was immediately in evidence, as stated (Bereishis 2:12), “The gold of that land is good.” Yet from creation to the making of the Mishkan there were 26 generations! And even before gold was used for the Mishkan it was used for idolatry, as Rashi says (Devarim 1:1), “They used gold for Baal,” and as the Midrash relates, there were idols of silver and gold in Avraham’s times. Nevertheless, after gold was used for idolatry, it was used for the purpose for which it was created — “for the sake of the Mishkan.”

Hence, although the earliest use of radio was for unclean purposes, this should not prevent Jews for using it for holy purposes — the goal of its creation.

Ironically, those very same people who decry the use of radio to spread Torah use its power for secular things. The telegraph runs on the same principle as radio, and these people use them in their business dealings. To use radio or telegraph to make money is permitted, it appears. But when it is used to disseminate Torah — it is all of a sudden prohibited to use this “evil” means [...].

Whence comes this illogical thinking and this claim that radio is a creation of evil? It is not the use of radio per se that bothers them. It is the dissemination of Chassidus that vexes them; and their chagrin causes them to find any pretext to condemn the spreading of Chassidus as a bad thing — to the extent that they put forward arguments that contradict a basic tenet of the Jewish faith.

We speak of this only because it is necessary to emphasize and adjure that one should not be ashamed because of scoffers. Instead, one must increase as much as possible in the dissemination of Chassidus via all means — including radio. [...]

May it be G-d’s will that all these matters be fulfilled with pleasantness and with peace, with true and full serenity.
Now, I could understand if owning a car (or a driver’s license) was forbidden to a yeshiva bochur, because it may give him ability to leave yeshiva whenever he pleases, etc. (even though I don’t agree with such pedagogical approach, but that’s another matter). But these rabbis, it seems, think that owning a driver’s license is inappropriate for a talmid chochom in and of itself. To this one cannot answer anything clearer than what the Rebbe said. We came into this world to transform it — not to separate ourselves from it. We must engage the world — in a G-dly way and for the purpose of G-dliness alone — but engage nonetheless.

Cosmic network

Look at this semi-serious post: “Free world”.

And now compare with this post: “Open Web and Spiritual Progress”.

Dizzingly boring

Ever seen anyone faint from boredom after a long, insipid speech? Here’s what happened recently during a speech by our eloquent Vice President:

This reminded me (after 2:50):

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Free world

Imagine, if instead of looking like this, each colored box being a group of people living under control of some monopoly:
 Europe Political Map - 1995

...the world actually looked like this:

Europe map - map of Europe - satellite image, night lights over Europe, by woodleywonderworks

...and human society on this planet looked like this:

Langlands and Bell, 'Air Routes of the World (Day)', 2001. Museum no. E.10-2002, © Langlands and Bell

Seven ways computer games reward the brain

How we can apply the same principles to motivating students and workers and ourselves to do the serious work? I’ve often wondered about this myself as someone who both appreciates computer games and sometimes needs a little motivation to do the right thing despite the “right thing” being quite boring at the moment.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Thomas Jefferson’s nightmare

From Defending the Human Spirit: Jewish Law’s Vision for a Moral Society by Rabbi Dr. Warren Goldstein, the chief rabbi of South Africa (pp 127–128 in the 2006 edition):
The fear [Jefferson had was] that of tyranny at the hands of the majority, who may seek to infringe the rights of the minority. The mention [in his letter to Madison] of civium ardor prava pubentium [“the excessive ardor and passion of the people”] indicates what Jefferson feared most — “not tyranny from above, from a nonresponsive closed government corporation, but tyranny resulting from the excessive ardor and passion of the people, in other words, from a faction.” 
Jefferson’s fear of democracy was such that he favored “a judicial veto and a year’s delay in the passage of legislation”.
Good old Jefferson knew what he was talking about. No wonder he discovered electricity, eh? (And had a veggie garden the size of three football fields.) What we have going on nowadays in this here country is nothing short of what the third President of America feared.

Now, imagine some Mac users saying that they are afraid of Windows users gaining majority and oppressing the users of other operating systems. Such a fear is laughable. Simply because this is not how market works. People pick which computer to buy, which OS to install, and users of different operating systems (as well as clients of different cell phone companies or chassidim of different rebbeim) can co-exist in the same society and even do business together.

Imagine if everyone in the society would have to vote for the members of some governing body that would determine what elements an OS that everyone had to subscribe to would have. Sometimes the Windows faction would be in the majority, sometimes the Apple one. Sometimes users would find having to click on a Start button, sometimes not. And everyone would use the same OS, and nobody would be happy. That would be crazy, wouldn’t it?


Saturday, November 13, 2010

Libertarianism and Torah

What is Torah’s position on anarchy, lack of a single compulsory political power in a given society? From Defending the Human Spirit: Jewish Law’s Vision for a Moral Society by Rabbi Dr. Warren Goldstein, the chief rabbi of South Africa:
Jewish law’s attachment to freedom is also manifest in its struggles with the concept of any political power. A king, by definition, limits his subjects’ freedom. The following Midrashic passage discusses the appointment of a king mentioned in the Book of Deutoronomy:
The Holy one Blessed is He said to Israel: “My children, I had intended that you be free from kingship … like a wild donkey in the desert that has no fear of man on it, so had I imagined that you should not have the fear of kingship on you…. But you did not want that.”
The passage reveals that the ideal is the untrammeled freedom of the wild donkey in the desert that answers to no man. It does not distinguish between a good king and a tyrannical one, which implies that a king, by definition, imposes limits on the freedom of his subjects. 
Jewish law has always been wary of political power and has therefore sought ways of controlling rather than enabling it. Thus, even though the Bible makes provision for the appointment of a king, no king was appointed for hundreds of years after the conquest of the Land of Israel. When eventually the people requested of the prophet Samuel to appoint a king, they were met with opposition both from Samuel and from G–d Himself:
All the elders of Israel then gathered together and came to Samuel, to Ramah. They said to gim: “Behold, you are old and your sons did not follow your ways. So now appoint for us a king to judge us, like all the nations.” It was wrong in Samuel’s eyes that they said: “Give us a king to judge us”, and Samuel prayed to G–d. G–d said to Samuel: “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for it is not you whom they have rejected, but it Me Whom they have rejected from reigning over them. Like all their deed that they have done from the day I brought them up from Egypt until this day — they forsook Me and worshipped the gods of others.”
Many Biblical commentators and Jewish law experts have debated, from Talmudic times, the seeming inconsistency between the command in Deuteronomy: “You shall surely set over yourself a king” and the grudging acquiescence given by G–d to the people’s request in the Book of Samuel. And yet, whatever explanation is given, the apparent contradiction reflects the fact that the political authority of a king presents problems for and creates tension within Jewish law. This tension means that Jewish law is naturally drawn to a constitutionalist model of emphasizing the limitations of state power, rather than exercise of it. Because it is uncomfortable with the authority of a king, the Jewish law seeks ways to limit his power.
Even the command to appoint the king given in Deuteronomy is far from uncontroversial. It is phrased in what is for the Bible is a relatively unconventional style in that it makes the appointment of a king dependent on the people’s declaration: “When you come to the land… and you will say, ‘I will set a king over myself.’” Biblical commandment are usually just that — commandments — and do not depend on the support of the people for their validity. Furthermore, the Bible, in uncharacteristic fashion, seems to be motivating the appointment of a king by referring to the practices of “all the nations”. The strange phraseology leads Rabbi Nehorai, one of the scholars (Amora’im) mentioned in the Talmud to conclude that the appointment of a king is not mandatory but rather dependent on the wishes of the people. It is a concession to the people’s weekend of needing a political figure “like all the nations”.
Update: for Chassidic approach to the mitzva of choosing a king, see Tzemach Tzedek’s Derech Mitzvosecho, “Mitzvas Minui Melech” (it’s one of the chapters translated in the Sichot in English edition). It explains why — from the spiritual perspective — Shmuel haNovi did not want Jews to have a king, and what the advantage of Melech HaMoshiach will be over the previous kings.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The special advantage of prayer

From Tuesday’s Chitas, an amazing explanation, from the spiritual perspective, of the advantage of prayer over Torah study and performance of mitzvos. Don’t worry about the specific terms, the “anatomy” of Seider Hishtalshelus. The concept is simple and beautiful.
To understand the passage in Pri Etz Chayim, that in the contemporary period the primary purification is only through worship [i.e., prayer], though Torah study is superior to worship. The explanation is:
Through Torah and mitzvot additional Light is drawn forth into Atzilut [the first world]. This means that through Torah study the blessed Infinite Light is drawn into the vessels of Atzilut, into the inner aspect of the vessels. This Light is an extension and revelation of the Divine Intellect. Through mitzvah observance the Light is drawn into the external aspect of the vessels, meaning netzach-hod-yesod of the Ten Sefirot of the Minor Visage of Atzilut. Subsequently they clothe themselves in Beriah, Yetzirah, and Asiyah, in the physical Torah and mitzvot in This World.
However, prayer calls forth the blessed Infinite Light, specifically into Beriah, Yetzirah and Asiyah, not merely through “garbs”, but the Light itself, to modify the state of creatures. The ill will be cured, for example; the rain will fall earthward that vegetation may sprout forth.
On the other hand, through Torah and mitzvot there is no modification in the parchment of the tefillin through donning them on head and arm. Even those mitzvot that are fulfilled through making the object — that change is effected by man, and not by Heaven, as is the case with prayer. The latter calls forth the vivifying power from the Infinite, blessed be He, Who alone is all-capable. Hence, calling forth the blessed Infinite Light into the lower world is impossible without the “elevation of mayim nukvin” from below specifically.
By contrast, Torah study affects Atzilut, which is united in any case with the Emanator, blessed be He. The “elevation of mayim nukvin” in the mind and heart of man is a state of boundless flames of fire, and described as “m’odecha”, to arouse the state of Infinite. This is through the Severities of Sa’g, which constitute the 288 sparks.
For this reason prayer is called “Life of the moment”, for it is Malchut descending into Beriah, Yetzirah and Asiyah. 
While the study of Torah and performance of mitzvos results in the increased amount of G-dly Light in the world of Atzilus and “garments” of the lower three worlds (respectively), these changes are, so to speak, quantitative. They happen in already existing phenomena, strengthening them.

Prayer, on the other hand, invokes a change in G-d’s plan for the creation, so to speak. Somebody who was created sick becomes healthy; somebody who is poor becomes rich, be”H. In order to accomplish this, a completely new Light has to enter the creation to affect what is being prayed for. In a sense, the change is not just quantitative, but qualitative also. And this makes prayer an extremely special and lofty activity that must be approached with great devotion, seriousness and preparedness, not “mumble-mumble-mumble — three steps back — Aleinu — bye”.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

It ain't real

I apologize if this is repetitive and wordy. I am writing this at work, and it is quite late.

We learn in the third chapter of Sha'ar HaYichud VeHaEmunoh, the second book of Tanya (to get to my point, skip until after the quote — or until the main point):

The Alter Rebbe has explained that the activating force of the Creator must constantly be vested within creation, ceaselessly recreating and reanimating created beings ex nihilo. This force consists of the creative “letters” which emanate from the five supernal organs of verbal articulation.
והנה אחרי הדברים והאמת האלה
Now, following these words of truth concerning the nature of creation, namely, that the activating force must continually be vested in created beings and create them ex nihilo,
כל משכיל על דבר יבין לאשורו איך שכל נברא ויש הוא באמת נחשב לאין ואפס ממש
every discerning person will understand clearly that every creature and being, even though it appears to have an existence of its own, is in reality considered to be absolute naught and nothingness
לגבי כח הפועל ורוח פיו שבנפעל המהוה אותו תמיד ומוציאו מאין ממש ליש
in relation to the activating force which creates it and the “breath of His mouth” which is within it, continuously calling it into existence and bringing it from absolute non-being into being.
Since this function must be continuous, it follows that the creature’s activating force is the true reality of its existence; the being itself bears no comparison to the activating force which is wholly responsible for its existence.
ומה שכל נברא ונפעל נראה לנו ליש וממשות
The reason that all things created and activated appear to us as existing i.e., self-subsisting and tangible, and we fail to see the Divine activating source which is the true reality of any created being,
זהו מחמת שאין אנו משיגים ורואים בעיני בשר את כח ה׳ ורוח פיו שבנברא
is that we do not comprehend nor see with our physical eyes the power of G‑d and the “breath of His mouth” which is in the created thing.
אבל אילו ניתנה רשות לעין לראות ולהשיג את החיות ורוחניות שבכל נברא
If, however, the eye were permitted to see and to comprehend the life-force and spirituality which is in every created thing,
השופע בו ממוצא פי ה׳ ורוח פיו
flowing into it from “that which proceeds from the mouth of G‑d” and “His breath,”
לא היה גשמיות הנברא וחומרו וממשו נראה כלל לעינינו
then the physicality, materiality and tangibility of the creature would not be seen by our eyes at all,
כי הוא בטל במציאות ממש לגבי החיות והרוחניות שבו
for it (this physicality, etc.) is completely nullified in relation to the life-force and the spirituality which is within it
מאחר שמבלעדי הרוחניות, היה אין ואפס ממש כמו קודם ששת ימי בראשית ממש
since without the spirituality within it it would be naught and absolute nothingness, exactly as before the Six Days of Creation, at which time the creature was utterly non-existent.
והרוחניות השופע עליו ממוצא פי ה׳ ורוח פיו, הוא לבדו המוציאו תמיד מאפס ואין ליש ומהוה אותו
The spirituality that flows into it from “that which proceeds from the mouth of G‑d” and “His breath,” — that alone continuously brings it forth from naught and nullity into being, and this spirituality gives it existence.
אם כן אפס בלעדו באמת
Hence, there is truly nothing besides Him in any created being, apart from the Divinity — the only true reality — that brings it into existence.
The created being does not constitute a true reality, inasmuch as it is wholly dependent for its existence on the continuous flow of Divine life-force. Indeed, its existence verily consists of that activating force.

Usually, when I explain this idea, I give an analogy from physics. We know that position is relative. I may be close to you, but I am far from him. We know that speed is relative. If I am on a train, and I roll a ball across the floor to you, the ball may be rolling 1 meter per second relative to you, but relative to someone outside the window, the ball is rolling 51 meters per second (or 49 mps), since the ball is moving with the train. We know thanks to Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity that time, mass and length are relative: the faster I move (relative to you), the slower time passes, the more massive I become, and the shorter (in the direction of the movement) I become — relative to you.

At this point I usually say: lehavdil, Chassidus, introduces the concept of relativity of existence. One thing exists only in relation with another thing. So, relative to each other, we can be said to exist, since our existence, our "magnitudes" are approximately equal. But relative to G-d, who is the only true existence, the only unconditional, infinite, undefinable, supernal existence, we cannot be said to exist. Relative to Him, we cannot be said to really exist. Limit to infinity of 1/x approaches zero. Our reality and existence become “dissolved”, as it were, in the infinite reality and existence of G-d. And since G-d’s “point of view” is the real one, we really do not exist.

Main point:

Tonight, however, while driving in the car, I suddenly envisioned a simpler way of thinking about the above. Maybe it is not necessarily closer to Alter Rebbe's pshat, but it is nevertheless one way of understanding the creation's non-existence:

If the world is created anew every single moment, created ex nihilo, then each “instance” of the world exists for infinitesimally small amount of time. The “space” that the world occupies on the time line, on the line of existence, is zero, literally. Because it's not that the world we live in is changing, and this change is caused by G-d, but it's the same old world all along. Aderabe: it's not the same world. It's a new world every single moment. The world that is created is gone immediately, and a new world comes and is gone again. Just like the past cannot be said to exist, the present really cannot be either! Tanya makes this very hippy-sounding concept very real by linking it with creatio ex nihilo. There is no specific world that you could point your finger at to say it exists. Because it's already gone.

It is an incredibly deep and powerful thought from the point of view of haskala, philosophy. But the avoida message for us is very powerful too. One could take the reality too seriously. And the above says: "Don't. It doesn't really exist." How can you be a slave of your everyday worries if they do not really exist? On the other hand, one could also very easily say: “Hey! The reality is illusory. There is no true world. The world does not exist. Worries do not exist. Responsibility does not exist. Consequences do not exist. The spoon does not exist. Be merry; be happy; do whatever you wish, go wherever your whims pull you at the moment.” But Chassidus answers to that: “Aderabe! There is one reality that does exist — G-d!”

G-d exists. And we have a responsibility towards Him. And it is the only responsibility we have. The only reality that we can have — that we must have — in our lives. And everything else — yes, it does not exist! The worries about the physical things; the desires of physical pleasures (from ice cream to cool gadgets); all the distractions of the physical world, all the loves and fears of the physical world — yes, they themselves are nothing. They don't exist. But G-d does. And His will to keep creating this world out of nothing exists. And those aspects of our reality that have to do with Hashem and His Will — namely, Torah and mitzvos — oh yeah, those things are real. The only reality there is. And (looking for the opposite perspective) to think that the world can ever be a barrier to Torah, can ever distract one from Torah, is ridiculous.

But it goes deeper. Because we do have responsibilities. We have to keep feeding ourselves and our families. And be cognizant of our health. And work and earn parnoso. And look for apartments (one-bedroom or studio in Brighton/Brookline/Allston area starting January). Because these things have to do with our mission in this world; with our carrying out of His Will. We have to be mentchlach. Because Hashem put us in this world for a reason. But we cannot be worried — since, after all, this is all nothing, and He is in charge.

Thus, on the one hand, Chassidus liberates us from taking the world too seriously. We leave the Mitzroim of thinking that the gashmius that surrounds us, all of its everyday details, are real and important. And on the other hand, Chassidus forces us to be responsible towards gashmius — but responsible because we are responsible to Hashem! Chassidus refocuses our relationship with the world as an existing, real, independent, scary entity that one has to take seriously for its own sake to a relationship with G-d (through the world): the infinite, all-powerful, benevolent G-d. And as a result, a chossid is a mentch who takes the world seriously, but only as a way of serving G-d.

But it goes deeper. If the only things that can be said to exist are He and His Will and those aspects of reality that have to do with His Will, then by bringing Torah into the world, by making the world relevant in terms of Torah, by using the world as a tool in our avoidas Hashem (as opposed to shielding ourselves from it) — but not for the sake of the world; for the sake of Torah and Hashem! — we really do become partners in creation: we make the world exist. You can recycle all you want — you're recycling a lot of nothing. But do a single mitzva, and you're creating a reality.

And that, Frodo, is an encouraging thought. But at the same time, it's a great responsibility. Because this means that we have to sift through every single grain of sand that comes our way and ask ourselves two questions: 1) am I using this in my service of G-d? and 2) can I use it in my service of G-d? It's very easy to answer “no” to the first question and throw the grain of sand away. But we better be sure first that we could not make this grain of sand into a dwelling for G-dly Presence.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Monday, November 1, 2010